Future Connections

Students work alongside career manufacturers to improve plant efficiencies

The Whirring of pneumatic wrenches filled the Komatsu plant in Newberry, South Carolina, as four Clemson students made their way past workers assembling yellow forklifts. A woman noticed the students’ bright orange hard hats and greeted them with the two words every Clemson diehard likes to hear:

“Go Tigers!”

It was a warm welcome for a team that had made the 90-minute drive from campus to help Komatsu assess how it could reduce its energy use. The students were from Clemson’s Industrial Assessment Center, a program that takes engineering education out of the classroom and into manufacturing plants. The center’s energy-use assessments are free and come with the potential to save each participating company tens of thousands of dollars.

With 36 site visits in its portfolio, the center is now charging into its fourth year with 20 student interns eager to leave their mark on the world. Among them is Lakshana Nagaraj, who is working toward a master’s degree in industrial engineering.

“I think energy saving is the ‘in’ thing right now,” she said. “There is a lot happening with climate change and the environmental effects. We need to do something about it. This is the first step. Everyone can make an effort toward energy saving.”

The center’s teams have been fanning out across the state for three years to assess small- to mid-sized manufacturers. Based on their recommendations, companies have implemented around $2.3 million in savings. In energy terms, that’s equivalent to 50,000 barrels of oil, or the equivalent annual CO2 emissions of more than 4,000 cars.

While the assessments have helped companies reduce their environmental impact, they have also provided students with real-world experience and connections with employers, said Michael Carbajales-Dale, the center’s director and an assistant professor of environmental engineering and earth sciences.

Clemson launched the center in October 2016 after receiving nearly $1.3 million from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. It is among 28 Industrial Assessments Centers nationwide, cited by the White House in an October 2018 report as an example of a federal program that “contributed to the progress in manufacturing education, training and workforce development.” Clemson’s center is made up mostly of undergraduate engineering students who work up to 14 hours a week as paid interns under the supervision of faculty members.

To be eligible for an assessment, companies must have fewer than 500 employees at the plant site, gross annual sales below $100 million and annual energy bills between $100,000 and $2.5 million. The plant must be within 150 miles of an Industrial Assessment Center. Most of the Clemson assessments take place in South Carolina, although the center’s coverage area also includes parts of Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee and southwestern Virginia.

On the Komatsu site visit, the team looked for ways to save money throughout the plant, from the cranes and compressed-air system to the lighting and heating. Ben Snelson, an industrial engineering major, said that when he first started doing assessments, he hardly knew what a manufacturing plant looked like. By the time he went to Komatsu, he had been on several site visits and had an eye for energy efficiency. It was good that many of the workers were using cordless drills powered by batteries and saving the compressed-air drills for the bigger jobs, he said.

“When you have a ton of running tools and a lot of lines and a lot of moving things, the hoses can get leaks really easily,” Snelson said. “They’re using batteries, so it’s cheaper. Compressed air is expensive.”

All signs point to a bright future for the center. Carbajales-Dale said he was working to find new sites to assess and for new ways of connecting clients with various pools of money, such as low-interest loans and rebates, that may be available to help make energy-efficiency upgrades.

“It’s not just in-and-out,” he said. “We’re connecting them with resources that can help get the job done.”

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